STORM STORIES: Drive-By Truckers front man Patterson Hood’s life on display for ‘Heat Lightning’
By Steve Wildsmith (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Patterson Hood’s life doesn’t exactly mirror those of the characters in his songs.
During a recent phone interview, the co-founder, co-bandleader, singer and guitarist for the Drive-By Truckers takes time out to scold a rambunctious puppy. That’s a far cry from the guy in “12:01,” (the lead-off song to “Heat Lightning Rumbles in the Distance,” his most recent solo album) who drives toward a liquor store at 12:01 a.m., watching the zombies shuffle in and out and waiting his turn to buy the anesthetic that’ll help him chase away the morning.
“Half of this record very much came from my contemporary, right-now life,” said Hood, who performs Saturday night in downtown Knoxville. “It’s probably the most personal and immediate stuff I’ve ever written. ‘Leaving Time,’ ‘Fifteen Days,’ ‘Come Back Little Star,’ ‘Heat Lightning’ — all of them are very, very immediate, and there’s definitely some darkness in them. But hopefully there’s light also, because I’m in a pretty good place overall these days.”
Not that “Heat Lightning Rumbles in the Distance” is a pop record. Hood’s an avowed fan of music in general, and his eclectic tastes run the gamut — his best-of-2012 list included albums by Father John Misty, Sonic Youth’s Lee Renaldo, Sharon Van Etten and Alabama Shakes, among others — but it’s not in his nature to write songs that can be described as fun. And even those that take on a more light-hearted tone can’t help but include a streak of menace or unease. (Examples: The 50-year-old couple into drugs and threesomes in “Margo and Harold” or the litany of potential victims in the rocking “Nine Bullets,” both songs on the second Truckers album “Pizza Deliverance,” released in 1999.)
No, Hood is more in his element when he’s writing about bad men (“The Three Great Alabama Icons”), sad men (“The Fourth Night of My Drinking”), hurting men (“Mama Bake a Pie”) or crazy men (“I Used to Be a Cop”). His flair for Southern Gothic storytelling helped make the Truckers — founded by Hood and bandmate Mike Cooley — one of the most respected contemporary rock ‘n’ roll bands of the past decade.
Born in Alabama, he and Cooley formed the band Adam’s House Cat before eventually putting together the Truckers. After a couple of well-received records, the double-album “Southern Rock Opera,” which used the ascendancy and (literal and figurative) crash of Lynyrd Skynyrd as a mirror for a cultural examination the South, put the Truckers on the cultural map. Rolling Stone gave it a four-star review, and No Depression named the Truckers band of the year.
With follow-up albums like “Decoration Day,” “The Dirty South,” “Brighter Than Creation’s Dark” and “Go-Go Boots,” the Truckers continued to meet and exceed expectations of what a Southern rock band can do with two talented songwriters, one (Hood) with an eye for socially conscious topics and tales and another (Cooley) who can make something as simple as drinking Coke and chewing ice into a touching song.
For “Heat Lightning” — Hood’s third solo album after 2004’s “Killers and Stars” and 2009’s “Murdering Oscar (and other love songs)” — Hood was in a nostalgic mood, revisiting a time in his life post-Adam’s House Cat, pre-Truckers in which he left his hometown, his car got stolen, his band’s van was stripped and his heart was broken. He started out, he said, to write a semi-fictional account of that period, the 27th year of his life.
“It was a really (messed)-up time, for sure, and I had this idea that I was going to write a book about it, and it kind of got off to a pretty good start until I kind of hit a point where I needed to put it down,” he said. “It was a story I wanted to tell, and I thought I was in a place to tell it. It came really quickly and pretty easy, until I hit kind of a combination of writer’s block and more personal stuff in my life, and I didn’t feel like I wanted to spend that length of time in that dark of a place.
“In the meantime, it kind of spawned a bunch of songs, and I kept writing more songs that had nothing to do with the other songs, and the next thing you know, I’ve got an album’s worth of stuff. So it’s songs from two slightly different periods of time, but they’re all new songs. As for finishing the book, I may at some point, or I may not; I love the idea of finishing a book, but I’m not going to rush it.”
The centerpiece of the album is the title track, which may very well be the most perfect song Hood has every recorded. He describes it as one of his personal favorites from his vast catalog, as well as one of the “all-time favorite performances” by his father, noted Muscle Shoals session player David Hood.
“That’s saying a lot,” Hood said. “He’s a pretty bad-ass bass player, and he was really happy with it and really proud of that track.”
The song itself, he added, was a difficult one to complete. His modus operandi when it comes to songwriting is that if completing a song is too arduous, then there’s probably something wrong with it. This one, which sprang from the real-life death of his great-uncle George (also referenced in the Truckers song “The Sands of Iwo Jima”), was laborious because of the weight of emotions surrounding the subject matter.
Starting out with a mournful piano dirge, it’s told from the perspective of an old man standing in the shadow of his old house and the years in which he’s lived there, watching the sun set as heat lightning flashes on the far-off horizon and the ghosts of the past whisper from the deepening shadows of the barn and nearby woods.
“It’s a song about coming to terms with losing someone you love,” he said. “I was very much raised by my grandmother and my great-uncle as a child, and my great-uncle was about to turn 91 when I wrote the song. I knew our time was running out because he wasn’t doing well, so I was kind of preparing myself to say goodbye to him, but also reveling in how much my children are like him, and how much of him will live on when he’s gone, through what he passed down to me and what I’m attempting to pass down to my children, and how someday they’ll pass down to theirs.
“Ironically, a month after we recorded it, he did pass away. I went home to the memorial service, and I took my wife and children out to the farm he lived on for 88 of his years, and I watched this song happen. I watched it come true in front of me. It was winter time, so there was no heat lightning, but in spirit, it was very much happening.”
The photograph on the album cover itself is taken from that visit: Hood pulled a mirror from over the mantle of the old home and sat it on the ground to clean it off. His wife captured Hood’s reflection, a solemn man frozen in year-grimed glass atop a blanket of fallen leaves.
“That kind of sums up the record in its own way,” he said. “It’s a snapshot of a moment in time — kind of sad, kind of beautiful and all of the things in between. It’s like life in that way.”